Yes to Negotiations, But Only under Moscow’s Conditions
Aslan Maskhadov’s death totally changes the picture in Chechnya
Sanobar Shermatova, special to Prague Watchdog
Not long ago one could say there were three types of talks about the Chechen problem. First, representatives of the Union of the Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers (UCSMR) met in London with Akhmed Zakayev, emissary of Chechen resistance leader Aslan Maskhadov, and adopted a five step declaration towards peace. Second, Maskhadov proposed a private meeting between him and Russian President Vladimir Putin, assuring him that only half an hour is necessary to stop the resistance in Chechnya. And finally, there is the "Round Table" discussion due to take place on March 21 and organized by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). In the current situation, after the death of Maskhadov, it is this last initiative that seems the most plausible.
No one can cross the same river twice
The meeting of the soldiers' mothers with Zakayev was going to be a failure from the very beginning. Not only because Moscow was categorically against it, but Brussels, where the meeting was to take place, refused to issue visas to the UCSMR representatives due to diplomatic pressure from Russia. It is clear that a non-governmental organisation without support from officials was not up to negotiating an end to the armed conflict in Chechnya.
Another failure was due to the fact that Akhmed Zakayev himself is an irritant to Moscow and is labeled a terrorist. But this was not always the case. Zakayev, who was the Minister of Culture under the government of the then Chechen leader Jokhar Dudayev, was known more for his inflammatory interviews than for military achievements during the first military campaign. Therefore, in Chechnya, he was called a TV guerrilla.
In 2001, he and three other Chechen public figures were regarded as negotiators by Moscow. At that time, Yevgeny Primakov, former chief of Russia's intelligence (SVR) and former Prime Minister, was promoting the plan of peaceful resolution of the Chechen problem.
The plan, however, was never officially published (although in his later interview with the radio station “Echo Moskvy”, Primakov revealed he had delivered the document to the Kremlin), but it is known through speeches of the diplomats who drafted it. In general, the plan resembles the one for attaining peace in Tajikistan where a civil war broke out between the communist government on one side and the Islamic and national opposition on the other, in the beginning of 1990s. The document was written and realized by the Russian intelligence SVR and Foreign Ministry. The conflicting sides signed a peace accord in Moscow in 1997.
Primakov's plan was almost going to be implemented when General Viktor Kazantsev and Akhmed Zakayev met in Sheremetyevo Airport in the autumn of 2001. Later in his book “The World after September 11th” Primakov wrote that after 9/11 Putin decided not to rule out the possibility of talks with someone whom Maskhadov designated. Nevertheless, the implementation by the military was mindless, and perhaps even intentionally distorted, claimed Primakov.
Negotiations failed, as did Zakayev by later getting on friendly terms in London with the Russian mogul and Putin's opponent Boris Berezovsky and consequently getting crossed off the list of negotiators. Moreover, the Russian government suspects that the Union of Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers is financed by Berezovsky. Therefore, it goes without saying that Moscow would never welcome such a meeting.
What were the suggestions of Zakayev and the UCSMR? The memorandum signed by them had actually offered returning to the agreements of 1997, meaning that Moscow would have to declare the Chechen referendum and two presidential elections null and void; to dissolve the current Chechen executive branch; and to state this was all a mistake and to start again from scratch. Needless to say, a plan like this could not possibly be accepted by the Russian government.
Why did Putin not respond to Maskhadov’s invitation to meet? Probably for the same reason as Russian President Boris Yeltsin in 1994 when he refused to meet Chechen President Jokhar Dudayev, who also promised that one personal meeting would be sufficient to stop the imminent war.
Personal hostility induced by critical and sometimes offensive speeches become serious barriers for making contacts. The human factor plays a much bigger role in politics than one thinks. And there were quite a few indelicate moments between Putin and Maskhadov, not to mention that sometimes the Ichkerian leader used rather un-diplomatic language when talking about the Russian President.
On the eve of the second military campaign, Russia used Chechen contacts in Moscow to deliver a message to Maskhadov. The conditions were as follows: if Maskhadov gives up the presidency there would be no troop deployment as everything would be limited to police operations to disarm the guerrillas. Maskhadov responded negatively, believing that the duty of a president and soldier was to protect the republic. He also rejected further suggestions to pass along his presidential mandate to the Parliament of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria.
What could the Chechen leader and Russian President have talked about since their public positions were so completely opposite? Maskhadov’s official project (also known as Conditional Independence, prepared by Ilyas Akhmadov, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ichkeria) provided for complete withdrawal of the Russian military, dissolving the executive branch, and introducing a UN peace-keeping unit. The plan was unrealistic and would have meant Russia’s losing not only Chechnya, but the entire North Caucasus as well.
However, Maskhadov probably had a backup suggestion, which might have been acceptable to the Kremlin. It was no coincidence that he and his representative Umar Khambiyev in their last interview consistently repeated that independence was not the most important issue, that there were more pressing ones to be resolved with the Russian authorities, such as bringing an end to terrorist actions and ensuring security for the Russian and Chechen populations.
Maskhadov wanted guarantees, probably international ones, that Russia would never use force in dealing with Chechnya. It would not be too big a price to pay for Russia since it has no resources for such military adventures in the future. As for the Ichkerian president, such an agreement would have given him an opportunity to leave the political scene with dignity. Perhaps this may have been the compromise offered to Putin. But unfortunately, we can only speculate about “what might have been.”
The "Round Table"operation
The third possible form of negotiation is the "Round Table" meeting to be held on March 21 under the auspices of PACE. It will be attended by the current Moscow-backed Chechen authorities, NGOs, deputies of the Russian Duma and members of the European Parliament. The agenda is still secret, most probably because it has yet to be finalized.
It is already obvious that this meeting will not solve the terrorism problem in Chechnya. Representatives of the separatists cannot take part in the round table because they do not comply with the requirement to recognise Russian territorial integrity, and Shamil Basayev and other commanders will continue the guerrilla and mine warfare, which makes any project of rebuilding the republic’s ruined economy impossible. Then why organize these talks?
Eliminating Aslan Maskhadov, the legitimately elected president, turned a page in Chechen history under the name Ichkeria. The "Round Table" talks without a legitimately elected leader of the separatists and with none of the field commanders there, means that for Europe the question of Chechen separatism is closed. From now on the guerrillas operating in the Caucasus will be called international and Islamic terrorists. And the conflict, which appears not to be ending any time soon, will lose international dimension and will not be used by Europe or the USA to pressure Russia.
Sanobar Shermatova is a reporter for the weekly Moscow News (Moskovskiye Novosti). She occasionally contributes to Prague Watchdog.
Translated by Mindaugas Kojelis.
(MK/E,B,T) RELATED ARTICLES:
· Long negotiations with unclear results (PW, November 16th 2001)